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French presidential race tightens, but many still unsure

Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron holds a one-point lead over nationalist Marine Le Pen in the first round of voting. But in the second round, when there will only be two candidates, Macron has a 20-point lead.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahlen TV Debatte (Reuters/P. Kovarik)

The candidates (L-to-R): Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon

The race for the presidency in France appears to be tightening with support for the two front-runners declining slightly, while backing for the third and fourth place candidates showed small gains.

But, with 38 percent of voters still undecided, the race remains fluid.

The latest BVA poll showed centrist and self-declared 'reformist' Emmanuel Macron and nationalist Marine Le Pen each slipping one point to 25 and 24 percent respectively. Macron promises to "transform not reform" France.

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Meanwhile, the scandal-plagued conservative candidate Francois Fillon gained two points to 19 percent and the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is up one point to 15 percent.

But - with nearly 4-in-10 voters unable to say who they'll vote for, or open to changing their vote - the race remains wide open.

The good news for Macron is that he has solidified his base of support, with 63 percent of his backers now saying they are committed to voting for him. That represents an 8-percent increase over the past week, and his highest score ever since he began campaigning in earnest in February.

But Le Pen maintained by far the most solid voter base, with an unchanged 81 percent of her voters certain to pick her.

Surprising right-wing election results elsewhere, including the US presidential race won by Donald Trump and Britain's Brexit referendum, have led to expectations in some quarters that Le Pen's anti-euro, anti-immigration platform could propel her to power in France.

Two rounds of voting

But the tight race at the top applies to the first round of voting scheduled for April 23. Only the top two finishers will advance to the second and final round of voting on May 7. And there Macron has a more commanding lead over Le Pen.

In a one-on-one - Macron vs. Le Pen – race, the centrist is leading his far-right rival with 60 percent support.

But even Fillon cannot be ruled out. The conservative Republican candidate who once led the race until he was laid low by a corruption scandal has rebounded. He is now within 5 points of Le Pen and 6 points behind Macron. 

Fillon's popularity plunged last year after allegations emerged that he paid his wife for a "no show” job as his legislative assistant when he was a member of parliament.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon also gained one point, to 15 percent - leaving him just one point behind Fillon.

The BVA attributed Melenchon's growing support to both a strong performance in the race's first TV debate on March 20 and increasing numbers of his natural sympathizers deciding to cast a ballot.

The official Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon is in fifth place with 11.5 percent. His hard-left policies appear to be making his candidacy vulnerable. Among Hamon's base of voters, just 45 percent said they were committed to voting for him. The rest could end up splitting - about equally - between Melenchon and Macron.

bik/rc (Reuters, AFP)

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